I often feel like I’m typing into the void (I am, I know it; it’s somewhat by design). But, every once in a while, I’m reassured that my thoughts are reasonably constructed and connected in valid ways to the things on which I reflect.
I’ve been thinking about journalism a lot lately, and the way that some journalists have a very narrow ‘beat’ and others have a general genre and are given free reign to cover a variety of topics in that sphere. For instance, ahead of Basquiat: Boom For Real at the Barbican Centre Art Gallery in London, The Guardian has run a series of articles by their staff writers about Jean-Michel Basquiat covering everything from his personal aesthetic to race/power/money to one-off meetings with the artist to in-depth reflections from some who knew him well. Their writing is erudite, insightful, but, for my tastes, a little too broad given the people who I’ve known to work on contextualizing Basquiat’s work and life within African Diasporic (Afro-Caribbean and Black American) histories and culture rather than as a central-yet-marginal figure in the all-too rarefied and white ‘art world’.1
Seph Rodney‘s work at Hyperallergic, is, to me, the antithesis of what The Guardian has done with Baquiat. Rodney’s perspective is critical, steeped in research, and shapes his pointed questions about art and community. So, it seems fitting that, as a conscious or unconscious rejoinder to the inclusion of THAT essay in Hyperallergic’s Required Reading for the week ending/beginning September 10, 2017, Rodney re-interviewed an artist and ‘Dreamer’ currently attending art school, THAT art school. The opening of the interview vindicates my ire with THAT essay:2
Seph Rodney: Hi REDACTED. We’re having this conversation because we had talked last year about your immigration status and how that affected your experience as an art student at CCA. Now we want to follow up, given what’s happened in the past week, with the president ending DACA. We had exchanged emails, and you said that you felt very precarious, very anxious about what was happening, and that you might lose the Cal Grant funding you have. Is that still the case?
REDACTED: I believe so, yes, because previous to having DACA I was not able to actually transfer from community college to California College of the Arts. Without DACA, I had actually applied to California College of the Arts and got accepted, but I wasn’t able to make the transition because I didn’t have the Cal Grant, so the Cal Grant plays a huge role in me being able to continue [my studies].
I should be in the last semester of my junior year, but because I don’t know what’s happening with DACA and these six months are just living in a limbo, I’m actually starting my senior year instead, and I’m forced to put all my classes into a very hectic schedule so that I can graduate Spring of 2018. My DACA expires October of 2018, which I knew was going to happen and so the best I can do is graduate before October, just to guarantee that I will finish here at CCA.
SR: Right. Because the alternative is if you’re not done, then you basically have no degree and you may be deported.
REDACTED: Correct. Exactly. And that is one of my biggest fears right now, I’m actually doing, I think, seven classes, and the normal is five or four, no more than that, but because I can’t lose the scholarship that I have and I can’t go halfway through with my education, I’m going to do whatever it takes to get out of here next spring, just to guarantee that I won’t lose everything I’ve worked for so far.
- Off hand: Tosha Grantham did work on Baquiat at the Smithsonian when she was a grad student at Howard; Franklin Sirmans curated Basquiat and the Bayou for Prospect New Orleans; Kevin Young‘s To Repel Ghosts (the double album) and its Remix… hip hop, poetry, biography, musings, elegy…) ↩︎
- Rodney’s first interview with the artist is An Undocumented Artist Shares Her Experience of Alienation in the US. ↩︎
She must be white. And she must not be an immigrant. Her perspective on education, on employment, on debt, not to say anything of her opinion on the role of art for individuals or communities, all belie a sense of entitlement to being – just being – in the world.
She represents none of the things that I or my students of color, many of whom are also immigrants, know: an education, if it’s available to you in any form, no matter the cost, is priceless; big box discount retail work is there when pretty much every other door is closed to you or you need a second job to make ends meet; you take on debt to maintain a working level of dignity in a society that will consistently treat you like shit without certain markers but will treat you marginally less shittily (not better, less shittily) if you can acquire the right somethings – should you happen to figure out what those ‘right somethings’ are and where they might exist.
A friend and former professor of mine who is Puerto Rican and Afro-Latina adheres with perfect devotion to a program of self-love. Her clothes, her hair, the framework of her thinking and doing in the world, all remember her origins. Every opportunity she has she takes to use every resource available to recover and reclaim every aspect of her history, a legacy that this society has methodically endeavored to erase or forget. That is education. Furthermore, when it comes to research in her field, command of her subject, and the presentation of information, her rigor is unsurpassed. Her professional excellence isn’t the result of her passion for the subject; as a scholar and as an educator, she refuses to be complicit in any program of elision. Besides, if she was less than perfect as an academic, if she bullshat her way through, she wouldn’t be chuckled at or called “irreverent”, she’d be shamed.
And debt. Beyond the financial costs associated with post-secondary education of any kind, what is the debt in time and attention for active parents/partners/family and/or community members who perfect their crafts, polish performances, and memorize and produce instantly the names, theories, and accomplishments of relevant practitioners in their fields only to have to fight for the professional footing and recognition that goes so easily to ‘edgy’ white contemporaries? Time and attention are debts that cannot be repaid in minimum monthly amounts only to be forgiven after 20 years (240 consecutive payments). Time passes.
When I was 17, I passionately loved literature and was falling hard for photography. I was an adequate high school student; except for my English and theatre classes and the occasional history course, I was bored out of my mind. So, I, too, made the leap to a private college I could not afford where I also putzed around academically. I had a disastrous sophomore year. I dabbled in art history rather than take in a timely fashion the courses required for my English major. However, instead of flubbing the finale, in my senior year I took on more expenses and registered for and passed (more than adequately) all of the courses necessary to complete my degree. And I used loans to pay the last bill. My mother, my sister, my father, my professors, my ancestors, and any person for whom I’ve done any good since my undergraduate graduation were and are – always – more than enough reason for me finish what I start.
White people should duke it out over the cost of an education or whether the quality or cogency of that education is worth the price – they set the prices and the curricula (and, lately, in that order to predictable ends). But because she’s entitled to bitch about her fancy, expensive, unofficial BFA (which, let’s be honest, all she has to do is say the name of her school, she doesn’t actually need the diploma or transcript to get on with it), the rest of us have to cobble together the means to be in this world from available materials no matter the cost.